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A response to a challenge issued at [livejournal.com profile] atgstories. It's still rough around the edges, and it will no doubt undergo some changes in the future - I have already tweaked it up a little, but we all know these things have a life of their own. For now though, this is what I've got. Feel free to check it out.

Title: The Gift
Summary: Aristotle catches Alexandros up past his bedtime.
Feedback: Yeah. I can take it.


Macedon was not the ends of the earth. Aristotle’s friends would have had him think so, when he had told them that he had accepted an appointment with Philip of Macedon to be tutor to his son the prince. They had howled in dismay, scorned the north as a barbaric wilderness, all harsh weather and dark thick forests and high mountains, peopled with rough wild men who did not even speak Greek, and Philip the worst of the lot. The man was a tyrant they said, little more than a jumped-up cattle thief, who had stolen his brother’s throne and got himself named king. Philip’s son, they opined, would be no better.

They had been right about the weather, Aristotle could admit, but they had been very wrong about Philip. He spoke perfectly good Greek, for one thing. The man was sharper than he let on, a statesman as much as he was a soldier, with a good grasp of political expediency and a wit keen enough to match any scholar. As for his son, he was sharper yet – quick and bright with a mind that collected knowledge the way that magpies collected things that glittered; indiscriminately and seemingly at random. Aristotle had come to Macedon for the money that Philip had offered. He had stayed, he wrote to his friends, for the boy.

He was a wonder, Alexandros. Any fool could have seen that, and he was only just now going on 15. He challenged everything he was told, not out of bloodymindedness but from simple curiosity; he always wanted to know why a thing was so. Why was a favourite question of his, with How not too far behind. Why did black iron heated and folded and heated again over charcoal fires become bright steel? How did it happen, and how was it worked? Why did swallows leave before the first snows set in? How did they know when to go, and where? Why did Demosthenes in Athens rail so against his father? How did a man win glory, if not through strength? He was an oddity, Aristotle supposed; discussing politics and poetry with equal ease, thriving on the tales of old heroes but seeing their faults for what they were. A practical dreamer, if there ever could be such a thing.

None of which meant, of course, that the lad did not have faults of his own. His dreaming was not the least of them in Aristotle’s opinion. His independence, in a way, was another. The boy learned quickly, but what lessons he took on board were of his own choosing. He was given, the philosopher had discovered, to making his own mind up about things. He liked to do things himself. There were certain things he held to the heart of him, and no amount of ethics or logic or good honest debate would change them. He could be stubborn, which was part royal pride and part his own private arrogance, that the laws of the world did not always apply to him. He had very little concept of limits. It was, Aristotle sometimes thought, almost disturbing.

He also had a certain disregard for rules. Aristotle could have lived with that in philosophical debate, discussing the laws that might be applied to thought and action by the gods and nature and man. In pure practicality, he was less inclined to be so tolerant of it – especially when it came to finding the prince in his own work room in the middle of the night, working with his own best papyrus and inks and with several books and notes spread out all around him. The papyrus and inks were costly, for one thing. The prince was meant to be in his rooms asleep, for another. Aristotle had precious little time for himself with a horde of Macedonian hellions to marshal: he had developed the habit of working late into the night, after the boys had turned in. He was hardly going to approve of his sanctuary being invaded by one of them, even if that one was a prince of Macedon. “What,” the philosopher asked, clear and cutting from the doorway, “are you doing?”

Alexandros did not have the grace to look caught out, or even much concerned. He only looked over at his tutor and said, “I needed the books, and the lamps. I didn’t think you would mind.”
“Mind what?”
“Mind me copying them. Parts of them, anyway. I’m making a collection. It’s meant to be a surprise.”
Aristotle blinked. “Copying? That’s scribe’s work, lad. Why not tell me what you want doing, and I’ll have someone …”
“No!” A sudden fierceness answered that, with a drawing down of the brows in a determination that Aristotle had come to recognise. Alexandros had made up his mind about this; he was not going to change it. “No, I have to do it myself. It doesn’t count, otherwise.”
Aristotle wondered briefly what in the world the boy meant by that. A work copied was work copied; it hardly mattered whose hand it was in. In any case, a scribe would have made a neater job of it than the prince would; Alexandros’ writing was the same as everything else about him – quick, competent and impatient. It was legible, the philosopher conceded, but hardly aesthetically pleasing.

A scribe would also have made fewer mistakes, and taken more care. Aristotle saw as he moved to stand behind the prince the scattering of papers marked with ink stains and blotches and crossings out, discarded to one side. He yelped in dismay, grabbing them up. Wet ink smeared his hand in the process; he hardly noticed. “Sweet Zeus, boy! Have a care! This is my best papyrus that you’re scribbling all over, do you even know what this costs?”
Alexandros looked surprised, then irritated. He was not in the habit of counting the costs of things – and in any case, it was only a dozen sheets of papyrus. It was hardly as if he had gilded them all in gold before he threw them out. Some things were not worth worrying about. And of course it was the best papyrus he could find. What he was writing was meant to be a gift; he was not going to use just any old scraps for that. He tipped his head to one side and gave his tutor a considering look. The philosopher was an odd creature, with his large head on its stick of a neck, and his set, piercing eyes. Alexandros rather liked him for the most, but he did tend to fret over the strangest things. The prince said, “Is my father not paying you enough? He mustn’t be, if you’re worrying over a few scraps of papyrus. I can ask him to give you more, if you like. Or I can pay for it from my own allowance.”

Aristotle only grunted. He had not expected contrition, after all. He gave the prince a hard look. “What you can do, boy, is tell me what this is in aid of. If I have to go back to your father the king and tell him that his son has taken up vocation as a scribe, he’ll have my hide. He warned me already not to make a philosopher out of you, he won’t be happy if he thinks I’ve turned you into someone’s secretary.”
The young prince laughed at that, light but a little harsh under the surface of it. “I doubt my father really believes I have the makings of a philosopher in me, no matter what you teach. Sometimes I doubt he thinks I have the makings in me of anything at all.”

It was said as manfully as one could expect of a fourteen year old boy, with a fair attempt at dry, bleak wit. Aristotle was not fooled; he heard the disappointment beneath, and the bitterness under that. He knew where it came from, too. Olympias was the author of that, driving a wedge between father and son. It was part of the reason why they were here at Meiza and not comfortably ensconced in the palace at Pella; Philip had wanted the boy away from his mother’s influence. Well, that was what came of not keeping one’s women to heel, the philosopher thought. Olympias ought never to have been allowed such influence in the first place. The boy was not to blame for that, though – that was Philip’s mistake, for not keeping his wife in order. He spoke only as sharply as he to.
“Your father thinks you have the makings of a man and a general and, one day, a king. And hopefully, a good mind to boot. He would not be paying me to let you destroy my best papyrus, otherwise.”
“Yes,” Alexandros said after a pause. It was a complicated thing, that pause; Aristotle was glad when it passed. The prince only said, “I suppose that’s true.” And then, because he had learned his manners from somewhere, “I’m sorry about the papyrus. I should have asked. It’s only … I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“For whom?” Aristotle glanced over the pages on the table, tracked over in the prince’s quick hand. He recognised what was written there – Thebes, Pelopidas, the honour code of the Sacred Band. There was a passage he recognised from Plato, lauding it to the skies; “If only there were a way of creating a state or an army that was made up wholly of lovers and their loves, they would be the best leaders of all, doing nothing that was base or dishonourable. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all the world than by his own beloved, when found in some act of shame, abandoning his post or throwing away his arms. And who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?” Aristotle sniffed in quiet disapproval. They were fine words – words after Alexandros’ own heart in fact – but there were times when Plato could be as much a dreamer as anyone else. An army of lovers and beloved … ah, yes, Aristotle knew where the boy was going with that. He had a passion for friendship, for personal loyalties, and for one friendship in particular. Aristotle was hardly blind to it, though he supposed he might have disapproved of the particulars. He had broached the subject in classes one day, speaking of the nature of friendship, that the purest form of love was of the mind, never the body. He did not think he had won himself any converts with that; this was Macedon after all. The best he could hope for was that Alexandros would not follow his father’s example, and keep to discretion and moderation. He was not surprised at all by what the prince said next.

“It’s for Hephaistion. It’s his birthday soon, I wanted to give him something he would remember better than a new cloak or a knife.”
“The code of the Sacred Band?” Gods, he knew the pair of them were close, but if they took that into their heads … dreamers and fools, all of them.
“More than that. Not just the Band.” If Alexandros had noticed his tutor’s disapproval, he did not care. “We will be soldiers, he and I. We’ll go to war together. I thought, it’s fitting if he has something to live up to. If we both do. I did the Band last week, when you took to your bed early with chills. Tonight, I’m doing Thermopylae and the 300. They were heroes among men, too. It would be glorious to live up to that.”

Why, Aristotle wondered darkly, were the young always so impressed by feats of war, carried out by men without the imagination to create peace? Peace was very much harder than war, much harder even than dying. No one, though, wrote songs about that. He sometimes thought that the poets had a lot to answer for.
“The 300 died to a man,” Aristotle reminded his charge, in a voice as dry as sand. “You can aspire to more than that.”
“What, more than immortality?” Alexandros stared at him, then laughed and shook his head. Well, maybe the boy did have some concept of limits, after all. “That would be hubris. No, listen.” He lifted the page he was writing on, reading swift and sure in the lamplight. “When Xerxes at the head of his huge host saw the line of Spartan warriors arrayed for battle in the pass, he sent forth a herald to tell them to lay down their arms. Leonidas, battle king of the Spartans, replied. If you want our weapons, he said, come and get them.” The prince paused, and looked up with eyes shining. “That is what it is to be a man.”

Privately, Aristotle thought that was what it was to be a crackbrained fool, picking a fight that one could not hope to win, but try telling any Macedonian that. They lived for war, thrived on it – they learned it at their mother’s breasts. Leonidas and his 300 had held the pass at Thermopylae against outrageous odds, and though they had fallen in the end, they had turned the tide of the war against the Persian invaders. For all of that, and for all the glory they had earned, they were still dead and dust, and Persia was still an empire of might and power enough to make wise men tremble. The Spartans’ stand had been heroic, it had been epic, it may even have been necessary. What it had not been, in Aristotle’s opinion, was clever. Then again, one did not expect cleverness from the Spartans. One expected them to stand and fight and die in glory. He hoped that the world could expect more from Alexandros of Macedon.

“So,” he said. “A gift for Hephaistion.” He was not sure how he felt about that. He supposed that it was better than what else the prince could have been writing for his friend – it was not love poetry, for a start. Then again, for a Macedonian, maybe honour and glory and men dying for the sake of them was the next thing to Sappho. Macedonians could be strange like that. Still, Hephaistion seemed a decent enough lad, bright in his own steady, solid way, nothing flashy about him. He thought before he spoke, and he could be devastatingly direct – he always told Alexandros when he was being an idiot, in any case. If Alexandros ever took it into his head to stand in a mountain pass in front of an enemy that outnumbered him ten times over and pick a fight, Aristotle was sure that at least Hephaistion would have something to say about it. He would stand with his friend – of that the philosopher had no doubt – but he would tell him he was being a fool while he did it. For some reason, the thought of it made him want to smile.

Alexandros had been thinking the same thing. “He’ll say Leonidas was a brave fool, but he’ll understand why he did it. Why all of them did it. Hephaistion would not have run away, either.” He read again from the book in front of him. “When the Spartans were told that the Persian Great King had so many archers that their arrows would block out the sun, they only shrugged and said, So we will fight in the shade. That’s like something Hephaistion would say when he’s being all practical, don’t you think? I think it is.” He blushed then, as if he had caught himself out saying too much, and went on quickly to the next thing. Aristotle let him. Young love was a difficult thing, sometimes.

“I was reading,” Alexandros said, “about the Persian Immortals. They’re the Great King’s elite troops, do you know that? Herodotus calls them the Royal Bodyguard, but there are ten thousand of them. What kind of a king needs a bodyguard ten thousand strong?”
Aristotle snorted. Well, that was Persian extravagance for you – and Persian tyrants were the most extravagant of all. “What kind of king indeed.”
He had not meant it for a question, but Alexandros answered anyway, furrowing his brow in thought.
“A very great one, I suppose … or a very corrupt one, who needs fear his enemies that much. Or,” he said dismissively, with a shrug of his shoulders, “one who wants people to think that he is great, when he’s really only a hollow shell. Why put on such a show, otherwise?”
“And which of those,” Aristotle wanted to know, “do you think the Persian king is?”
Alexandros thought about that too, then shrugged again. “I don’t know. A little of all three, perhaps. Maybe I’ll find out one day, and face the Immortals like Leonidas and the 300. They would be a worthy enemy, I think.”
“I’d hope that you’d do better than Leonidas,” Aristotle remarked. “That battle was lost in the end, remember?”
“The battle was lost, but the war was won. Parmenion says that sometimes you have to lose a battle to win a war. The trick, he says, is in picking which one.” The prince looked back to the book in front of him, with its tale of those long ago heroes. “They fought well, and they died bravely. In the end, a man can’t ask for more than that. But if I were to fight that battle over again, it would be different.”
“Different how?”
“Oh,” Alexandros said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I would win.”

That should have sounded like supreme arrogance. It did, in its way … but it also sounded like something else. It sounded like truth. Aristotle considered the boy sitting at his work table, in a simple tunic and sandals that had seen better days and that fierce dreamer’s look in his eyes, reliving old battles and planning new ones – and for all of it, past and present, sharing the glory of it with his friend who understood him to the inch. It was as well that he did understand, Aristotle thought now. Somebody had to. It was that, or madness.

He did not ask the prince how he planned to win a battle lost so long ago. He knew better – if he asked, the boy would tell him, down to the last manoeuvre. Aristotle never had been a soldier; he would not have known good strategy from a hole in the ground. Not on a battlefield, in any case. This, though, was not a battlefield. This was his workroom, and when it came to getting an errant prince of Macedon out of it and back to his own bed, he thought he could cope. He decided to be direct.
“So it’s a gift for Hephaistion, and it’s to be a secret. Why must it be done in the middle of the night?”
“Because,” Alexandros told him patiently, “it’s a secret. I have to wait for him to fall asleep, or he would know I’m up to something. It’s not like I can hide from him. He always knows where I am, when he’s awake.”
“If he were awake, and on some errand for me, he wouldn’t know what you’re up to. Especially not if I have you working on some copying for me.” It was a conspiracy of sorts, Aristotle supposed. That amused him for some reason. He tried not to make too much of it. He leaned over and capped the inks, giving his student a dismissive nod. “Go to bed lad, you can finish this tomorrow. I promise you, Hephaistion won’t hear of it from me.”

It was very late. Alexandros considered that, stifling a yawn. He had gone short of sleep for a few nights now, copying out the histories and stories that went along with glory. It was a hardship he had hardly thought of – a man should learn to go without sleep, after all; one never knew when it might be necessary. Leonidas probably had not slept, during those long nights at Thermopylae. But then, Leonidas had not had a tutor who would distract Xerxes until he was done putting things together. Alexandros gave in to the yawn, smiled and slid off his stool. He paused though, looking at what he had written down. Something to live up to, indeed. He glanced to Aristotle.
“Do you think that Hephaistion will like it?” he asked. “Do you think he’ll understand?”
He sounded very young then, and very hopeful. In spite of himself, Aristotle smiled. He wondered if he had ever been that young. He supposed he must have been, once. He thought of Hephaistion, and the way that he watched the prince with that look that one could not mistake, whether one liked it or not. Approval did not come into that, nor disapproval either. Some things simply were. Aristotle supposed he could accept it. He supposed, in the end, he would have to.
“Oh yes,” he said, meaning it. “He’ll understand. I’m sure of it.”

Aristotle watched the young prince say his goodnights and leave, shutting the door softly behind him. The room seemed dimmer somehow, with him gone. That was simple foolishness, of course – the lamps still burned on the table, making the ink of the papyrus seem to flicker and gleam, sending shadows around the walls. Somewhere in the far off past, a warrior king led his men into legend in a high mountain pass. Somewhere in the lodge at Meiza, a young prince dreamed of legends of his own. Aristotle did not doubt that he would find them. His needs were simple enough, after all; glory and honour and a friend to share it with. He had found the most important of those already it seemed, in a young man with quiet eyes and a warm smile, who called him fool and friend in the same breath and laughed at his tempers and understood every dream he had. Every man needed that, especially a man who would be king. Aristotle supposed he would not begrudge it. He only hoped that the world would not, in the end, live to regret it.

Legends did not have limits, after all.
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August 2006

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